As of 15 May, it has been approximately 14,600 days (40 years) since the Moody Blues released their 10th album, Long Distance Voyager. The album was inspired by sources as varied as 19th-century British artists, space exploration, human life expectancy, the Electric Light Orchestra, life on the road for middle-aged rock stars, and the familiar, wistful romantic themes that had fueled the band’s earlier work. There was no guarantee that Long Distance Voyager would revitalize their career, create a new generation of Moody Blues fans, and/or become an integral part of an early 1980s moment in pop-friendly prog rock. Luckily, that is precisely what happened.
The Moody Blues: A Brief History
The Moody Blues already had a storied past by 1981. They joined the British Invasion in 1964 as a mostly rhythm and blues band, scoring a UK #1 hit (#10 in the U.S.) with “Go Now”). Following this early success, the band went through a shakeup, with the line-up settling in as Justin Heyward (vocals/guitar), John Lodge (vocals/bass), Ray Thomas (vocals/flute/harmonica), Graeme Edge (drums), and Mike Pinder (keyboards). The quintet reemerged with 1967’s Days of Future Passed, a pioneering concept album that married orchestral music to rock and featured the haunting and now-classic rock staples, “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon”. The influence of Days of Future Passed on late ‘60s rock was profound, as other acts began to ponder the possibilities of orchestration in their music and philosophy in their lyrics.
The Moody Blues spent the next five years on a creative roll, releasing six more albums filled with Mellotrons, Chamberlins, orchestral arrangements, and thought-provoking themes. They built a global audience before getting burnt out and going on hiatus in 1974.
Rumors of a permanent Moody Blues split ran rampant; however, they reemerged with a comeback album, Octave, in 1978. However, recording sessions for the record were tempestuous, and subsequent reviews were mixed. For instance, Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden noted, “Octave is another cathedral of twigs built on a mudslide”. Ultimately, the Octave album and tour may have satisfied the faithful, but new fans were unlikely to be brought into the fold.
Fortunately, Long Distance Voyager would succeed as a more successful comeback record, with even Rolling Stone being on board this time around (“The Moody Blues’ musical canon doesn’t always go boom, but it’s dignified, eloquent and, like good sherry, should warm the heart of their veteran cosmic fans – and any others who chose to listen with fresh ears”, wrote Parke Puterbaugh). Ultimately, Long Distance Voyager spent three weeks at the top of Billboard’s best-selling album chart, giving the group a new lease on life that has continued into the 21st century.
The Road to Long Distance Voyager
By the time The Moody Blues wrapped up the Octave tour and reassembled to record their tenth record in 1980, Mellotron master Mike Pinder was out of the band (and replaced by Patrick Moraz, who’d been playing with Yes). A streamlined version of the classic Moody Blues sound emerged and, whether by design or by accident, the band created an album that may have pleased some of their original fans, but that resonated even deeper with a new generation of teens in approximately the same way that Days of Future Passed hit the same demographic back in 1967.
I should know: I was one of those new fans, weeks away from turning 16 when Long Distance Voyager was released on May 15, 1981. I knew “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon” and maybe another one or two Moody Blues tunes from the radio, but I wasn’t well-versed in any of the band’s albums. One of my best friends at the time was a guy named Mark; often, we’d walk to Mark’s house after school, hang out in his room (along with his pet piranha, Brutus), and listen to records. He was into Vangelis and the soundtrack to the Carl Sagan series Cosmos, whereas I was all about Devo and Blondie. Yet, Long Distance Voyager was the musical place where we found common ground.
So, what was it that drew Mark and me—and many others who weren’t even born when the Moody Blues first formed—to Long Distance Voyager? Let’s consider each of these three crucial factors:
- The hit singles.
- The deep album tracks.
- The cover art and the Voyager connection.
The key to the initial success of Long Distance Voyager was two singles released in the spring and summer of ‘81 (“Gemini Dream” and “The Voice”, respectively). The Moody Blues were part of a growing contingent of prog rock artists that released commercially successful, catchy-as-hell singles in the early 1980s. These included Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You” (#40, 1981); Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” (#4, 1982); Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart (#1, 1984); and Rush’s “New World Man’ (#21, 1982). While some hardcore fans inevitably cried “sellout!” it was fun to hear such bands rise to the challenge of creating a concise pop hit.
The Moody Blues entered this fray with a Hayward/Lodge co-write, “Gemini Dream”, soon after the release of Long Distance Voyager. It’s a propulsive rocker with a new wave edge (thanks to newcomer Moraz’s keyboards), but the Moody Blues’ version of new wave sounds way more like the Electric Light Orchestra than it does Devo. In fact, certain bits of “Gemini Dream” sound absurdly ELO-ish, particularly the ELO of 1979’s Discovery and 1980’s Xanadu soundtrack. Fortunately, this tone proves to be a natural fit for the Moodys (plus, The Moody Blues were clearly an influence on ELO for quite a while before ELO influenced the Moody Blues).
“Gemini Dream” rose to #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making way for the overall success of Long Distance Voyager. Curiously, it also made an appearance on Billboard’s Dance chart, peaking at #36. Really, it might be the only Moody Blues song to have ever generated any dance floor action. Lyrically, “Gemini Dream” generally addresses the life of a rock band on the road, which is a clear sub-theme of much of Long Distance Voyager. However, cosmic lyrics like “You know you’re going to wake up in a Gemini dream” leaped out of the radio and straight into the ears of young listeners, prompting thoughts of what exactly a “Gemini dream” could be.
The Moody Blues capitalized on the success of that tune by quickly releasing the anthemic album opener, “The Voice” (written by Hayward), in July ’81. It reached #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and peaked at #15 on the Hot 100. Again, the lyrics were attention-grabbing: “Out on the ocean of life my love / There’s so many storms we must rise above” and “Understand the voice within / And feel the change already beginning”, for example. I mean, who doesn’t hear voices within now and then, especially when you’re 16-years-old?
While the final Long Distance Voyager single, “Talking Out of Turn”, peaked at just #65 on the Hot 100, its two predecessors did their job in leading new fans to discover the LP as a whole. Beyond that, “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice” became the template for future Moody Blues hits, particularly “Your Wildest Dreams”, which would peak at #9 in 1986.